It speaks volumes about how much Liam Fontaine is enjoying life at Ross County that even allowing for the dual setbacks of a relegation and the most serious injury of his career, the former Hibs centre-back is able to reflect on his first 16 months in the Highlands in a positive light.
The 33-year-old Englishman is one of the senior players in a rejuvenated and close-knit County side currently basking in the glory of winning the Championship and an instant return to the Premiership. In addition to relishing the prospect of competing in Scotland’s top flight once more with a team thriving under highly-regarded co-managers Steven Ferguson and Stuart Kettlewell, Fontaine has been busy cutting his coaching teeth since he and former Hearts player Don Cowie were handed control of the County Under-18s in March.
“I first made the move to Ross County because I wanted to get back playing regular football again and be wanted, and it’s worked out great for me,” Fontaine told the Evening News. “We went through the relegation and we had to rebuild, which the managers have done with the backing of (chairman) Roy MacGregor. We’ve got a great squad, we’ve played some good football and we’ve won the league. Now the second part of my role is managing the under-18s with Don Cowie, so it’s been a great move for me. I’m very settled and the opportunity I’ve got County is massive.”
Fontaine’s season was effectively ended when he ruptured his Achilles tendon against Dundee United in November, although the fact he returned to contention quicker than anticipated and was able to feature in the squad for the closing matches of County’s title triumph gave him no shortage of solace. “From a personal point of view, it was a hard season because of the seriousness of the injury I got in November. I got told that was my season over but, as a team, we had a target we wanted to achieve and that gave me my motivation to try and get back before the end of the season, which I was able to do. Once you set your mind to something, you want to be part of it so it was great to get on for a bit of the game where we finally sealed promotion against Queen of the South – I had been on the bench for the two previous games to that. It felt like I’d gone full circle in my recovery by getting back on the pitch. It gave me a great mental boost going into the summer because a lot of people told me it would be next season before I’d be fit enough to play again.
“It was probably the hardest injury I’ve had to deal with to date. Everyone knows how serious a ruptured Achilles is but credit to Roy MacGregor because he knew where I wanted to go to have my surgery and he backed me. Getting back in the time I did validated where I wanted to go there for the surgery. The rehab itself was mentally tough but you just have to accept it and break it down into smaller segments, setting myself mini goals, rather than seeing it as a six-month lay-off. I was reaching my targets well, there were no adverse reactions and it just healed well.”
Although he was unable to play at the real business phase of the season when County pulled away from the likes of Ayr United and Dundee United, Fontaine, who has ingratiated himself well since joining County from Hibs a year past January, insists he had no trouble remaining part of things.
“It’s a very close-knit squad and it’s our team ethic that got us over the line,” he said. “The managers wanted to get the right type of people into the club, people that want to play for the right reasons and want to be part of something bigger than just going out on the pitch every Saturday. The whole off-pitch thing is key in any good team. We had that at Hibs for the three-and-a-half years I was there and that was key to the success we had in winning the Scottish Cup and eventually getting Hibs back into the Premiership. It’s a very similar dressing-room at Ross County to what we had at Hibs. We went away to Majorca on the Sunday after the last game against Falkirk and the whole squad went – 22 players. Something like that underlines the togetherness of the squad. It was a great way to celebrate what we achieved. The lads deserved it after what we’d put into the season.
“We won a lot of games so there’s a real feelgood factor about the place. We know how much stronger the Premiership is but we’re looking forward to being back up there and playing against the better teams in Scotland. We’ll be better equipped this time than we were when we got relegated because we’re a tight unit now. We’ll be one of the smallest clubs in the league, and the managers are relatively new to the managerial world and a lot of the players haven’t played in the Premiership before, but everyone’s looking forward to getting back for pre-season already. From talking to some of the lads, a lot of them are keen to stay here. Why wouldn’t you want to stay at a place where you’re enjoying your football and the managers back you 100 per cent?”
Fontaine has another two years on his contract in Dingwall. Part of this will entail looking after the club’s most promising youngsters and trying to guide them towards the reserve and the first team after he and Cowie were handed the reins to the under-18 team in March. “The managers pulled me and Don in and told us we were the type of people they wanted to nurture the younger players,” said Fontaine. “Me and Don looked at each other and said ‘yeah, definitely.’ This is something we want to do after football, so to be given the opportunity to fit it around our playing schedule is great. Hopefully when I finish playing I’ll be in a position where I’ve got quite a few years’ experience of coaching and managing the younger lads.
“We’re learning on the job. Richie Brittain, the reserve manager, has been a big help in terms of guiding us. When we took over, I was injured so I was able to take a lot more sessions, but going forward I’ll be doing it on top of playing. Because it’s something I want to do, it will work. It helps working with a guy like Don. We bounce off each other well. Both having played in England, we’ve got high standards. When we first went in I don’t know if the guys realised the standards we were going to demand from them. At a club like Ross County, we don’t have the budget to sign players, we have to try and develop our own players, so for me and Don it’s about trying to give the managers or the reserves manager as many players as possible from the Under-18s who are up to the standards needed.”
Despite his additional responsibilities, Fontaine – who starts his UEFA A Licence this summer – has no intention of winding down his playing career. “I’ve still got two years on my current contract, and I’m primarily still a player,” he said. “Certain teams have policies regarding the age of their players but, as long as you keep yourself fit and in good shape, I don’t see why you shouldn’t keep playing. You can bring a lot to a team with your experience. During my injury, I took a different role within the squad in terms of being a mentor and using my experience to help people get through sticky situations. I genuinely believe you should play as long as you can and bring what you can every day in training.”